A death watch is the simplest way to describe the months leading up to New York City Opera’s curtailed and displaced 2012 winter season. The company’s financial crisis caused it to abandon the David H. Koch Theater (formerly the New York State Theater), it’s long-time home at Lincoln Center, and to be at such loggerheads with the musicians union that the season itself was in jeopardy.
But a new production of “La Traviata” did go on as scheduled at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, followed by four performances of “Prima Donna,” the 2009 opera by Rufus Wainwright, the popular Canadian-American singer/songwriter. The opening (Sunday February 19) had a virtually sold-out house with a number of luminaries from a variety of artistic realms.
In making the decision a year or two ago to mount Wainwright’s opera, it probably never occurred to City Opera management the potential irony of the choice. Yet the piece is a wistful paean to the past glories of opera, mostly from the point of view of the recently retired but still conflicted soprano who is the main character. During the performance, it wasn’t hard to make a mental leap and consider how City Opera’s best days are probably long gone. Even apart the work’s theme, the shaky orchestra playing, elegant if economic set and poor lighting were reminders enough of the company’s on-going troubles.
The opera is in French, with a libretto by the composer and Bernadette Colomine. Musically it’s a lean, almost understated affair. For Wainwright, a life-long fan of opera but a composer more experienced in song form, it was a wise choice to not overreach. Instead of attempting some hip new fusion of pop and classical, he wrote in a confident but highly traditional, even nostalgic style. There was a gentle Puccini-like yearning during the opening broken chords as well as a variety of passing homages to other composers throughout the two and a half hours or so of music. And was it a reference to “Der Rosenkavalier” that the tenor’s fiancé was named Sophie?
As Regine Saint Laurent, soprano Melody Moore had an always pleasant voice, but seldom showed the bigger than life heft of a true diva. The vocal part may not have been written to that scale, but the character still seemed to call for it. A more flashy though briefer role was that of Marie, the maid. Soprano Kathryn Guthrie Demos hit all the notes though her voice was chirpy and small.
Likewise, the young Taylor Stayton never quiet filled out the pivotal role of the journalist and wannabe tenor, either vocally or dramatically. A synopsis I found online (none was given in the BAM playbill) referred to the journalist as formidable and revered, but Stayton seemed like a cowed cub reporter. Baritone Randal Turner, though, was terrific as the arch and wise cracking butler to the diva. By the way, that same synopsis suggested that the butler had a “trusted companion” who appears in act one. But on Sunday afternoon he just looked like some guy arranging roses onstage.
During a prolonged fantasy in the second act, Saint Laurent relives a scene in an opera that she triumphantly premiered. Call it the opera within the opera. Here Wainwright’s vocal writing changed from something rather conversational to a more noble, gilded style. After the return to reality came the sad climax in which nearly every orchestral passage contained a descending bass line. Perhaps if City Opera had given a more emphatic performance, there’d have been a greater emotional vibrancy throughout rather than just the prolonged sadness at the end.
Ultimately, “Prima Donna” is an opera queen’s opera about opera queens. The character of Phillip, in particular, was worshipful of the Madame, at least until he cracks and storms off. Turner’s fey body language was delightful, though it never undercut his powerful singing. The onstage props also suggested a some links to Wainwright himself, who’s certainly got his own cult of personality in today’s music world. There were copious photos on the diva’s mantle, and a nostalgic reverence for her past costumes. And the ultimate gesture of the diva’s departure from music was her final autographing of a LP.
Being at the opening performance was something of a thrill for this upstater. Though it wasn’t quiet as gay an audience as I’d expected at a Rufus Wainwright concert, a few celebrities were easy to spot. Yoko Ono arrived with her son Sean Lennon and they sat just a few rows away. I took the occasion to wish Ono a happy birthday, one day late. (How did I so readily know her birthday? It’s a date we share!) During intermission we spotted the tall and handsome Angelica Houston. This was Doug’s turn to make an unbidded but friendly remark to a celebrity, telling her how much we’re enjoying her new show (“Smash”).
Then, of course, there was the ever stylish Rufus. I was surprised he wasn’t seated in one of BAM’s prominent boxes (for all to see) but was instead in the orchestra. He was wearing a black tail coat, with a jeweled wallet chain, with an open collared shirt and heavy necklaces, plus a toreador hat and a walking stick in hand. He was accompanied by the tall dark and handsome Jorn Weisbrodt. Shortly after they were seated down front, Weisbrodt could be seen ruffling Rufus’ long hair.
Photos by Carol Rosegg courtesy New York City Opera.
Here’s a video presentation of Rufus talking about the opera and the City Opera cast performing excerpts:
Previously on My Big Gay Ears: